Pandora on Pordoi, Simon Gietl and Vittorio Messin add huge mixed climb to the Dolomites
From 16 to 17 December 2019, after a day of reconnaissance, alpinists Simon Gietl and Vittorio Messini established Pandora (600m, V, M5, A0, WI6) up the west face of Pordoi (Dolomites) . This ice and mixed climb links via Abram with via Niagara and tackles the huge hanging icefall that formed on the upper section of the face.
The photo of the face is more than enough to indicate that the route is something special. Important. With one bivouac after a day of reconnaissance the previous week, on the 16th and 17th of December 2019 Simon Gietl and Vittorio Messini climbed a "rare gem" up the immense west face of Sass Pordoi in the Dolomites. The ice and mixed climb is called Pandora and runs to the left of Ghost Dog established in 2013 by visiting alpinists Jeff Mercier and Corrado Pesce; it shares the start of Via Abram (Erich Abram, Roberto Osio, E. Pertl 1953) then continues along via Niagara (Heinz Mariacher, Luisa Iovane 1978) to reach the huge curtain of ice that formed thanks to last year’s bizarre autumn. The climb totals 600m in height and covers circa 80m of origin terrain on rock and 120m meters on ice. This is in likely to be the first time that this combination has been ascended as a mixed climb in winter.
Simon, what can we say? What a truly amazing line. Congratulations!
Thanks! Yes, we’re happy. I’m not going to hide it, this is definitely one of my best climbs ever. Not only here in the Dolomites.
How did it come about?
Well I was in Austria with Vittorio as we were considering climbing a project there when we received a message from a good friend of ours, Isidor Poppeller. From what he wrote, and from the photo he sent us, we immediately realised that he was on to something very special.
Isidor told us that this season the icefall to the left of Ghost Dog was exceptionally fat, actually, it was huge! He himself had thought about climbing it, and with Michael Amraser he went to check it out. They reached icefall from the ledge close to the summit and abseiled down in to see if the ice was in condition. They climbed three pitches and then contacted me, saying it was something for us. I really have to thank him, because his enthusiasm quickly made me realise that this was an absolute plum line. We immediately changed our plans and headed for the Sella massif as quickly as possible.
What style and tactics did you want to adopt for this route? It’s a huge undertaking, especially in winter
Vittorio had never climbed on Pordoi before, but I myself know the mountain a bit because in 2013 I made the first repeat of Ghost Dog, the mega route immediately to the right put up by Jeff Mercier and Corrado Pesce the week prior to my ascent. Back in 2013 I climbed Ghost Dog with Adam Holzknecht in a single day, but for our new route Vittorio and I we were certain we’d need more time. Also because at this time of year the days are very short. So we planned at least one bivouac. The problem is that we both had different commitments, a finding a 2-day break that suited both of us was difficult.
Well waiting became too difficult, so we decided to have a look. We set off on Tuesday 10 December, the weather was horrible, -10°C up at the Sella pass, but since we wanted to see if our project was realistic or a dream we climbed the first pitches. The aim was to climb the initial pedestal, fix some ropes fixed and return at a later date. Our first impression was that this was something huge, but which might actually be possibile. But then got a surprise.
We weren't alone! There was another team above us! We later found out that they were Santiago Padròs and Francesco Rigon. They had the same idea as we did, and had started maybe 3 or 4 hours before us and were making good progress. They were climbing really swiftly. Vittorio and I looked at each other and didn’t think twice: we were there for the route, whether we were the first or last to climb it was irrelevant, what mattered was experiencing the adventure. This is why we decided to stick to our initial plan. And after about 140 meters we rappelled.
Maybe it wasn’t that easy to descend, knowing that others had eyed the same line and were already high above you?
Actually no, it wasn't difficult. Firstly because it was forced retreat; we had ice axes and crampons, but we hadn’t taken any ice screws because we just planted on climbing the pedestal. And secondly it was late. And thirdly, as I said, what was really important to us was climbing the route, not being first. It’s not a race up there.
And what about Santiago and Francesco?
They continued for another two more pitches, they’re a really strong partnership and were progressing rapidly. But then they bailed as well. Initially we thought because they wanted to find a better place for a bivy, but then we saw them abseil down to the base. Maybe they retreated because it was late in the day, in any case it would have been a really tough bivouac. Regardless of their attempt we knew clearly that we wanted to continue as planned, and returned on Monday 16 December
Ready for action
Indeed. This time with all the gear for a definitive attempt and a bivouac. We left the car at 4 am and it was clear that we were letting ourselves in for a huge adventure. We got a good warm up by ascending the fixed ropes then, just like Santi and Francesco, at certain point we deviated away from Via Abram and headed rightwards, following the logical winter line. We reached their highpoint and with short rappel we managed to join via Niagara. I have to say this descent caught us off guard, it wasn’t planned but it was the only way we could reach the corner. Alternatively we could have climbed a smooth slab but that appeared very difficult and it didn’t seem the wise thing to do.
How did you climb
We always swung leads. The leader climbed light, without a rucksack but with the tag line for the haulbag, the second with a small rucksack. I’d say that we had to establish about 90% of the belays, using wires, friends, threads, ice screws. We also placed 4 pegs which we left in-situ.
It gets dark early at this time of year
Yes, at 16:00 we pulled out our head torches. We reached a good place for a bivy but we wanted to push on and see if it was possible to reach the ice, so we stashed our gear on the ledge and kept on climbing. Then at 19:00 we returned to the ledge and pitched the tent.
Yes, we had a small tent with us! We obviously didn't know if we’d be able to use it, but while examining old photos of Pordoi in winter we’d noticed that there was always some snow on the ledge. We were hoping to find a good place to spend the night and were super lucky. We could have bivouacked a bit further down, one sitting a bit higher than the other, but being in a tent together is far better. Warmer. More fun. Down in the valley we saw some cars stopping, probably because they’d noticed our lights high on the mountain, so I called Andrea Oberbacher to tell him that we were fine and that if someone called the mountain rescue, we didn’t need help. Then we went to sleep. Given our location, we couldn’t complain in the slightest!
So you then set off at dawn?
The alarm went off at 6, it was still dark outside. We had breakfast, put the tent away, and started climbing at about 7.
On ice, the real reason for being there!
Yes we were finally there where we wanted to be! We reckoned the next pitches would be the crux, also because we already knew from Isidor that the upper section was feasible. And just as we’d thought, those two pitches were the hardest, initially up a bit of rock and ice, then pure ice. Steep, with some overlaps.
What was the quality of the ice like?
It couldn't have been better. Honestly. We were in the right place at the right time. Then all of a sudden we came across signs of Isidor's ascent and we knew at this point that we’d make it. We reached the huge ledge after 4 more pitches. The first two were still very steep, then the angle eased off.
The exposure up there is immense...
We felt it, but actually we didn't see it. There was so much fog that we hardly ever caught sight of the base of the face. It had snowed slightly during the night and it continued to snow during the day. In addition, the wind picked up. I have to add that despite the fact that it was snowing, water ran down the last pitches. Crazy.
But was it that warm? Wasn't it too dangerous?
When we got back to the car, at 19:30, it was +2°C so the Föhn wind had started to blow. I consider myself extremely cautious, and throughout the ascent I never got a bad feeling. Vittorio didn’t either. At the time of our ascent, the ice was perfect.
So there you were, up on the circular ledge
We took some photos and were as happy as two children below a Christmas tree. We knew we’d succeeded, but we also knew that the adventure was not over yet.
You still had to get off
Precisely. We started the rappells.
So you abseiled down the route?
Yes. Also because we’d stashed all the gear at the ledge. If the climb had proven too difficult, we could have bivouacked a second night, that's why we’d left everything there. When we reached our gear we then rappelled not down the route but directly down the fall line. At some point it started to get dark and we turned on our head torches. The raps went smoothly and at 19:30 we were back at the car. Our amazing adventure had come to an end.
What did this climb give you?
Various different things. The first to congratulate us was Santiago; this really struck me, I found it a beautiful gesture that demonstrates what a great person he is. If you ask me from a mountaineering point of view, I have to repeat what I said at the start. The climb is an absolute highlight. Being able to ascend that fact, adopting that style, in that ambient, with one bivy… I consider that really special. It seems like something you do on a remote peak in the Greater Ranges, but we pulled it off in our backyard mountains. That’s a rare privilege.
Link: FB Simon Gietl, FB Vittorio Messini, www.simongietl.it, Salewa